Medievalbookshop - Jargon used in book descriptions

Bargain books on the Middle Ages and all related subjects

Information pages
Abbreviations and jargon
used in book descriptions

As always, if anything puzzles you, you're welcome to use the links at the top of this page for your query. The great thing about email is you can display your ignorance quite brazenly in the full confidence that your friends never get to find out.

In the forlorn hope of not confusing non‑collectors, medievalbookshop's book descriptions try not to over-use acronyms and abbreviations. However, you will find a few used regularly, as follows:

  • ex‑lib. Ex-library. This copy formerly belonged to a library and will probably contain various cryptic markings and their ownership stamps, especially at the front of the book, but usually also at intervals throughout. In most cases (but not all) there will be an overstamp indicating that the book has been withdrawn from that library's collection and offered for sale - this is often lacking when a library discards books in bulk. All ex-library books are offered in good faith that the previous owner(s) had good title to sell them.
  • hb hardback.
  • n.d. "No date": the reprint or publication date is absent from the copyright page. If an approximate date can be guessed from the introduction or elsewhere, this will be noted in brackets.
  • pb paperback.
  • POD Print on Demand (i.e., digitally manufactured)
  • U.P. University Press.

More awkward from the non‑collector's point of view is the use of jargon. Most terms are self-explanatory once you get used to them, but one or two of these phrases sometimes puzzle people:

    boards The covers on a hardback book. These are usually some form of hardboard, covered with pasted-down cloth, paper, or various kinds of leather. Sometimes they have illustrations or decorations printed on them, in which case they're referred to as "printed boards". "Laminated boards" have that sort of shiny varnish coating and are usually washable (with a moist cloth only please; not usually suitable for underwater use).

    --- library boards Back in the 60s and 70s it was common for public libraries to remove a book's board covers and replace the with slightly more sturdy boards, usually patterned like really bad wallpaper, and covered with wipeable plastic. It sounds a bit odd now, but in fact it made them wear a bit longer before they had to be replaced, and made them slightly easier to clean. The pages would often be trimmed on all three sides, so that such books are frequently a bit smaller than copies from private collections. The dustjacket would usually be discarded, but sometimes it would be wrapped around the new boards and sealed under the plastic covering. This didn't just apply to hardbacks, by the way - you can still find books in library boards that were originally sold as paperbacks, with the original paper covers sealed under the plastic. Not strictly legal - if you've ever wondered about the warning on the copyright page that says a book must be resold in its original covers, this is the sort of thing they were trying to prevent…

    blocked/blocking usually refers to the boards. It's the process used for adding type and decorations when the boards aren't printed. It most usually take the form of gold blocking on the spine only, which means that the book's author and title appears on the spine with a gold leaf appearance. It doesn't have to be gold: other (cheaper) colours are becoming more common in recent books, though it doesn't have to be any colour at all. It might also be used on the front and back boards.

    bump, bumping Pretty much what it sounds like. Usually caused when the book is dropped, it basically indicates a heavy wrinkling in the area that was the point of impact: the extent of the damage usually depends on how high the book fell from, what fell on top of it, or, let's be frank, the amount of force with which you threw it at the wall in the first place.

    dustjacket These were originally just plain wrappers issued to protect a book's boards, and would be discarded once the purchaser shelved the book in his library. As time went on, they became more decorative, and were more frequently kept with and regarded as part of the book itself. More expensive or collectable items are sometimes issued with a clip case instead (or more rarely, as well).

    Many hardbacks are issued with one, and most paperbacks without, so in medievalbookshop's descriptions a note will be made alongside the book's format if it is known that a hardback was issued without, or a paperback with. However, if the matter is doubtful (a first edition might be issued with, and subsequent reprints without, for instance), the words "no dustjacket" will appear either alongside the format description (if there probably never was one to start with), or in the assessment of the book's condition toward the end of the description (if there might have been one at some point). If the words "dustjacket missing" appear, then that should speak for itself. As the jackets can be tattier than their books, they will often receive a separate assessment as to their condition.

    foxed/foxing That attractive brown speckly effect you get on old books. It usually comes from the book having been stored where there's a lot of moisture in the atmosphere, or bad air circulation, usually combined with the book being printed on low-quality paper. It sometimes makes the book smell more interesting.

    glassine/glassene That sort of flimsy tracing paper stuff (occasionally textured) that you sometimes find used on hardbacks instead of a printed dustjacket.

    in print this book should be available from the publisher or any full-price bookshop. These prices are listed wherever possible so that you can compare the medievalbookshop price against the recommended full retail price. Please note, these prices are not checked regularly, so any such details given may be out of date.

    out of print Theoretically this should mean that the title concerned is a really rare title and no longer available for love or money. In practice, it often means no more than it's not currently listed by a particular publisher. The market might still be flooded with cheap remaindered copies, or secondhand book club reprints; quite often it will be reissued by another publisher, as like as not in a budget price edition. These days, many previously "rare" titles can be tracked down cheaply and in occasionally daunting quantity by spending a little time searching the web. Once in a while, of course, "out of print" could also mean it's a really rare title and you can't get hold of it for love or money.

    perfect/stitch binding With perfect binding, the backs of the pages are sawn off and glued into the covers. Stitched binding means that the pages are grouped into little 'booklets' which are sewn separately before being grouped together and glued inon the covers. If you look at the back of the pages where they're attached to the spine you'll soon learn to tell the difference in most cases (though sometimes there's a little sort of bootlace affair glued on to make it look more elegant and disguise just how shoddy the binding really is; also, perfect binding can sometimes look stitched when the sawing off process leaves some of the backs intact). In a very general kind of way, stitching makes for a more durable book than perfect binding, though there are a number of other factors that will affect durability (especially the quality of paper used for the pages and the glue used for the binding); also, perfect-binding techniques have improved in recent years sufficiently to often equal or better their stitch-bound equivalents. 

    primary / secondary sources Basically primary sources are texts written during the middle ages, or by medieval writers; secondary sources are generally written later, or about medieval things. This is only a rough definition, of course: it's quite possible to have secondary sources written by medieval authors, and there's plenty of scope for further ambiguity. The distinction is used on this website, because that's the way most bibliographies are organised, so it's something that you're either already used to or you're going to get used to.

    rubbed In the context of a dustjacket, it means that patches of ink have been rubbed away revealing the colour of the paper beneath (usually white). If used of the boards, it generally means slightly (not heavily) frayed at the corners or edges.

    slip case A sturdy made-to-measure box into which the book fits snugly. Generally only issued with more expensive or collectable items such as art books or fine-press books. Their great advantage is that a well-made slipcase can look battered to hell and back while the book inside might still be in good-as-new condition.

    unpaginated The publisher has not printed page numbers: the cataloguer has counted them manually and probably missed a few due to being interrupted by the phone or the cat jumping on the keyboard.